Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Digital Journalism and Independent Reporting

(NB: This article was originally published on my other blog, The Spark of Accident, but I have decided to collect all essays related to the theme of journalism here instead.)

It is clear we are living through a period of a possibly radical transformation of mass communication; it is not clear just yet what it all means. . . . It may be a mere expansion of the Gutenberg Galaxy, or an entirely new paradigm on the horizon. Aside from a shift to new materials, new (and costly) tools that are geared ever more closely to the capitalist cycle of planned obsolescence and periodic upgrading, there is a concomitant – and to me much more significant – shift to new means of reaching people, means which promise distinct advantages: broader distribution, longer “shelf-life,” richer discursive content, escape from editorial and ideological agendas imposed by the habits and methods inherent in traditional media establishments, greater control over one’s work, and greater facility working as independent freelancers. The fact is, or so it seems to me, that it is easier these days to dispense with the support (as well as constraints) to be had by working under contract with a paper, a magazine, or an agency, though we all seem to fret as much as ever over the hope that someday we might get a plum post, and the insecurity of freelancing certainly warrants a bit of fretting. It costs money to cover a story, particularly if it requires travel and a long-term commitment to its gradual unfolding, and who is going to pay the bills? Are we to be stuck reluctantly to the usual arrangement controlling the financial end of our business, or can we explore new ways to fund our activity?

One of the signs that we are undergoing great change, and fighting the anxiety that goes with such change, is the constant stream of threads about new software, new cameras, new equipment of every sort. While it mostly bores me, I admit I see its relevance – we need to assess our tools after all – but instead of the usual shoptalk that characterizes most forums, we should be exploring the themes, perhaps more abstract but also more important, that bode for our futures as communicators. Where do our priorities lie? Are we mere consumers (oh, should I get the D300, the D700, the DP-1, the D-this or D-that)? Or are we producers? If the latter, then it seems to me that the questions we should be discussing here ought to be more along the lines of, “what stories should I be telling and how should I tell them?” What new narrative forms are capable of being developed and how might those forms affect consciousness? To what extent do new forms like multimedia slideshows help us to accomplish our goals, tell better stories, or, as some messiahs promise, free everyone from the power relations that obtain in traditional narratives? How might we make use of software like Flash to create different kinds of narratives, or like Omeka to encourage our “subjects” to become authors themselves and interact with our narrative machines according to their wont? What are the implications of narrative experiments such as Ritchin and Peress’s Bosnia site? Is multimedia the only formal innovation available to us, or does the New Journalism depend on a wholesale reevaluation of our activity and an embracing of all sorts of formal practices that hitherto we either discounted or were unavailable to us?

Which brings me to consider whether in fact we should define ourselves merely as photographers – perhaps it is better to call ourselves storytellers, narrators, essayists, anything that allows us to escape the restrictions that the establishment would otherwise impose upon us the moment we assume the title “photojournalist.” And this means as well that we should consider making use of all the tools available to us: in addition to mastering the various software that run our computers, cameras, filing and editing systems, we should master html, Flash, moving film technique – and of course, language. Text. Writing. Why should a reporter limit him or herself to the journalistic clich├ęs of the past (the five W’s and so on), when literature, history, anthropology, sociology and other discourses can be of so much help in filling out the dimensions of a big story? And who says a photographer cannot also be a great writer? I can list many.

You see, I think we are chasing red herrings when we limit ourselves to discussions of multimedia slideshows and soundtracks when in fact the potential for new communicational practices is really much greater than we realize and involves not so much the creation or implementation of new technological forms but a reassessment of older forms of communication along with their integration into the new media. That is, a simple thing like a website offers us unsuspected expressive power if we take the time to reflect on its properties and the new horizons it creates by its very nature. Not just images but words in this context take on a new life, because the structure allows for greater eclecticism and different kinds of linkages which potentially can transform narrative consciousness.

Take as an example the work I am doing on the Dominican batey website: while much has yet to be done (and there will of course be multimedia slideshows along with some recorded oral history), the real point there is that a new way of telling a story can be conjured out of materials that have always been with us – mere images and words – but combined in new ways that allow for a richer discursive experience, a multidimensional semiotic environment that frees up metaphor and restores conceptual “play” to our investigatory machinery – at one moment I am a reporter and at another a philosopher and at another a historian, but each role is played janus-faced and it is not clear where one begins and another ends. We are said to be living in the Postmodern age, a basic tenet of which is that rigid or pure categories are no longer sacrosanct nor manifest channels of truth; rather, collage, pastiche, metaphoric play and eclecticism are the order of being and meaning. Miscegenation. In a kingdom of mongrels, the bastard shall be king. If we are to survive, perhaps even thrive, then it behooves us to embrace this eclecticism and cease to think in the narrow terms that defined our practices in the heyday of magazine journalism (because despite all this talk of slideshows and soundtracks we still behave pretty much like the photojournalists of old). The model of career professionalism that prevails currently, perhaps best embodied by Nachtwey, is not necessarily the model we should be cultivating, as it is not really available to all of us, despite the fact that our universities now specialize in turning out photojournalists along just these lines. Sorry, Time and Newsweek have only so many contract positions, so most of us are forced into some kind of freelance position, which, if we take stock of the situation intelligently, might offer us possibilities for freer action and more valid work instead of being company hacks. What appears to be a stumbling block may in fact be the very thing to break our chains. But we need to be a little more enterprising, a little more imaginative, a little more gonzo.

One thing is sure: new media offer us the promise of once again becoming significant communicators, like the photo-essayists of the forties and fifties, instead of mere one shot illustrators of stories conceived, written and vetted by others. Instead of getting by as an afterthought in the trade, we could instead author our own existence, engineer our own agendas, and become truly independent contractors.

One of the ironies of our current situation is that we are enticed by formal possibilities that can free us, while we are stymied by financial obstacles, such as the fact that we still rely on the media establishment to pay us – or else who can fund our projects? So the task ahead lies in defining the models that might serve to keep our efforts alive if we decide to work independently of the establishment. So far, lamentably, I can think of only a couple workable but admittedly insufficient models: first of all, that embodied by Salgado, who manages to work independently by taking on commercial assignments that subsidize his documentary work. He also parcels out his documentary work to different publishers, breaking up larger projects into little smaller stories and shopping them off to different global regions. His ability to work in this way arose out of the fame that ensued upon publishing his early work (Serra Pelada, Other Americas) and some lucky strokes (such as being present at the attempted assassination of Reagan). Nonetheless it remains a viable model for the rest of us. The second model is that espoused by Luc de la Haye, who once argued that he didn’t need the support of the media establishment to continue his work so long as he had access to grant money or funds from think tanks and other such organizations. This is the model I have followed, largely because I am a product of America’s graduate school system, in which students survive by applying for grants, so I am just following my habitual MO. Nonetheless, this model too is available to others, though it is limited by the fact that there are few grantors and competition is fierce. However, most of us think solely in terms of the usual photographic organs instead of expanding our grant research beyond the precincts of our profession, and once one decides to look elsewhere, the number of possible grant sources increases encouragingly. All kinds of institutions offer grants, and many of them on the basis of criteria that have nothing to do with photography per se, but instead reward applicants on the basis of their ethnic or gender affiliations, their thematic concerns, their geographic location, or their innovative approach to journalism, among many other criteria.

These models are not, in the end, what we need to focus on in terms of fashioning satisfactory financial arrangements for the future, but the eclecticism they represent may provide clues as to how to proceed. I cannot really say, and I remain, as a result, a very poor man. On the other hand, I am slowly developing a body of work that I can call completely my own, conceived and executed according to my own lights, and whatever its faults, it is original, at least in the sense that it all originates with me. I work for myself, and that is really what it means to be independent. Course, I might be better off financially if I didn’t have a taste for the finer things in life (like a good bottle of Malbec from time to time); but high living and low funds have been features of our profession ever since Capa, so there’s nothing surprising there, and one must learn to live with the consequences of one’s decisions. This does not mean that one should just be content to live with less, nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I think we all need to focus on ways in which we can turn our special talents into a reliable means of earning a living and demand from the market (which can clearly benefit from our contribution, perhaps now more than ever) reasonable compensation for our labors. So rather than expend so much energy on discussing and evaluating the newest software and equipment, we might be better off discussing ways of making money instead of spending it.

The tools are just tools, but they threaten to become fetishes if we overvalue them. The thing that counts is your vision, which, if it is sufficiently vital, will achieve its inevitable form regardless of whether or not you own the biggest, best, newest thingamajig on the market – the real point is to protect that vision, to ward off the mediocrity and stultification that results from the standardization of our tools and unthinking conformity to the dictates of institutions built out of the boneyard of yesterday’s thinking.

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